Chapter 32 Relating chiefly to some remarkable Conversation, and som_emarkable Proceedings to which it gives rise
'London at last!' cried Nicholas, throwing back his greatcoat and rousin_mike from a long nap. 'It seemed to me as though we should never reach it.'
'And yet you came along at a tidy pace too,' observed the coachman, lookin_ver his shoulder at Nicholas with no very pleasant expression of countenance.
'Ay, I know that,' was the reply; 'but I have been very anxious to be at m_ourney's end, and that makes the way seem long.'
'Well,' remarked the coachman, 'if the way seemed long with such cattle a_ou've sat behind, you MUST have been most uncommon anxious;' and so saying, he let out his whip-lash and touched up a little boy on the calves of his leg_y way of emphasis.
They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, no_isplaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and ther_ith the chemists' glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brillian_lood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, an_ost sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in ric_nd glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured o_nd on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcel_eeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; whil_ehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, lik_unning water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.
As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it wa_urious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye.
Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of th_orld; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sate_ppetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnishe_old and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, an_oblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws an_rons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffin_or the dead, and churchyards for the buried— all these jumbled each with th_ther and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like th_antastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral fo_he unheeding restless crowd.
Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point an_urpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad- singe_luttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith's treasures, pale an_inched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungr_yes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass—a_ron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chines_hawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at th_argest coffin-maker's and a funeral hatchment had stopped some grea_mprovements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealt_nd poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them dow_ogether.
But it was London; and the old country lady inside, who had put her head ou_f the coach-window a mile or two this side Kingston, and cried out to th_river that she was sure he must have passed it and forgotten to set her down, was satisfied at last.
Nicholas engaged beds for himself and Smike at the inn where the coac_topped, and repaired, without the delay of another moment, to the lodgings o_ewman Noggs; for his anxiety and impatience had increased with ever_ucceeding minute, and were almost beyond control.
There was a fire in Newman's garret; and a candle had been left burning; th_loor was cleanly swept, the room was as comfortably arranged as such a roo_ould be, and meat and drink were placed in order upon the table. Everythin_espoke the affectionate care and attention of Newman Noggs, but Newma_imself was not there.
'Do you know what time he will be home?' inquired Nicholas, tapping at th_oor of Newman's front neighbour.
'Ah, Mr Johnson!' said Crowl, presenting himself. 'Welcome, sir. How wel_ou're looking! I never could have believed—'
'Pardon me,' interposed Nicholas. 'My question—I am extremely anxious t_now.'
'Why, he has a troublesome affair of business,' replied Crowl, 'and will no_e home before twelve o'clock. He was very unwilling to go, I can tell you, but there was no help for it. However, he left word that you were to mak_ourself comfortable till he came back, and that I was to entertain you, whic_ shall be very glad to do.'
In proof of his extreme readiness to exert himself for the genera_ntertainment, Mr Crowl drew a chair to the table as he spoke, and helpin_imself plentifully to the cold meat, invited Nicholas and Smike to follow hi_xample.
Disappointed and uneasy, Nicholas could touch no food, so, after he had see_mike comfortably established at the table, he walked out (despite a grea_any dissuasions uttered by Mr Crowl with his mouth full), and left Smike t_etain Newman in case he returned first.
As Miss La Creevy had anticipated, Nicholas betook himself straight to he_ouse. Finding her from home, he debated within himself for some time whethe_e should go to his mother's residence, and so compromise her with Ralp_ickleby. Fully persuaded, however, that Newman would not have solicited hi_o return unless there was some strong reason which required his presence a_ome, he resolved to go there, and hastened eastwards with all speed.
Mrs Nickleby would not be at home, the girl said, until past twelve, or later.
She believed Miss Nickleby was well, but she didn't live at home now, nor di_he come home except very seldom. She couldn't say where she was stopping, bu_t was not at Madame Mantalini's. She was sure of that.
With his heart beating violently, and apprehending he knew not what disaster, Nicholas returned to where he had left Smike. Newman had not been home. H_ouldn't be, till twelve o'clock; there was no chance of it. Was there n_ossibility of sending to fetch him if it were only for an instant, o_orwarding to him one line of writing to which he might return a verbal reply?
That was quite impracticable. He was not at Golden Square, and probably ha_een sent to execute some commission at a distance.
Nicholas tried to remain quietly where he was, but he felt so nervous an_xcited that he could not sit still. He seemed to be losing time unless he wa_oving. It was an absurd fancy, he knew, but he was wholly unable to resis_t. So, he took up his hat and rambled out again.
He strolled westward this time, pacing the long streets with hurrie_ootsteps, and agitated by a thousand misgivings and apprehensions which h_ould not overcome. He passed into Hyde Park, now silent and deserted, an_ncreased his rate of walking as if in the hope of leaving his thought_ehind. They crowded upon him more thickly, however, now there were no passin_bjects to attract his attention; and the one idea was always uppermost, tha_ome stroke of ill- fortune must have occurred so calamitous in its natur_hat all were fearful of disclosing it to him. The old question arose agai_nd again—What could it be? Nicholas walked till he was weary, but was not on_it the wiser; and indeed he came out of the Park at last a great deal mor_onfused and perplexed than when he went in.
He had taken scarcely anything to eat or drink since early in the morning, an_elt quite worn out and exhausted. As he returned languidly towards the poin_rom which he had started, along one of the thoroughfares which lie betwee_ark Lane and Bond Street, he passed a handsome hotel, before which he stoppe_echanically.
'An expensive place, I dare say,' thought Nicholas; 'but a pint of wine and _iscuit are no great debauch wherever they are had. And yet I don't know.'
He walked on a few steps, but looking wistfully down the long vista of gas- lamps before him, and thinking how long it would take to reach the end of i_nd being besides in that kind of mood in which a man is most disposed t_ield to his first impulse—and being, besides, strongly attracted to th_otel, in part by curiosity, and in part by some odd mixture of feelings whic_e would have been troubled to define—Nicholas turned back again, and walke_nto the coffee-room.
It was very handsomely furnished. The walls were ornamented with the choices_pecimens of French paper, enriched with a gilded cornice of elegant design.
The floor was covered with a rich carpet; and two superb mirrors, one abov_he chimneypiece and one at the opposite end of the room reaching from floo_o ceiling, multiplied the other beauties and added new ones of their own t_nhance the general effect. There was a rather noisy party of four gentleme_n a box by the fire-place, and only two other persons present—both elderl_entlemen, and both alone.
Observing all this in the first comprehensive glance with which a strange_urveys a place that is new to him, Nicholas sat himself down in the box nex_o the noisy party, with his back towards them, and postponing his order for _int of claret until such time as the waiter and one of the elderly gentleme_hould have settled a disputed question relative to the price of an item i_he bill of fare, took up a newspaper and began to read.
He had not read twenty lines, and was in truth himself dozing, when he wa_tartled by the mention of his sister's name. 'Little Kate Nickleby' were th_ords that caught his ear. He raised his head in amazement, and as he did so, saw by the reflection in the opposite glass, that two of the party behind hi_ad risen and were standing before the fire. 'It must have come from one o_hem,' thought Nicholas. He waited to hear more with a countenance of som_ndignation, for the tone of speech had been anything but respectful, and th_ppearance of the individual whom he presumed to have been the speaker wa_oarse and swaggering.
This person—so Nicholas observed in the same glance at the mirror which ha_nabled him to see his face—was standing with his back to the fire conversin_ith a younger man, who stood with his back to the company, wore his hat, an_as adjusting his shirt-collar by the aid of the glass. They spoke i_hispers, now and then bursting into a loud laugh, but Nicholas could catch n_epetition of the words, nor anything sounding at all like the words, whic_ad attracted his attention.
At length the two resumed their seats, and more wine being ordered, the part_rew louder in their mirth. Still there was no reference made to anybody wit_hom he was acquainted, and Nicholas became persuaded that his excited fanc_ad either imagined the sounds altogether, or converted some other words int_he name which had been so much in his thoughts.
'It is remarkable too,' thought Nicholas: 'if it had been "Kate" or "Kat_ickleby," I should not have been so much surprised: but "little Kat_ickleby!"'
The wine coming at the moment prevented his finishing the sentence. H_wallowed a glassful and took up the paper again. At that instant—
'Little Kate Nickleby!' cried the voice behind him.
'I was right,' muttered Nicholas as the paper fell from his hand. 'And it wa_he man I supposed.'
'As there was a proper objection to drinking her in heel-taps,' said th_oice, 'we'll give her the first glass in the new magnum. Little Kat_ickleby!'
'Little Kate Nickleby,' cried the other three. And the glasses were set dow_mpty.
Keenly alive to the tone and manner of this slight and careless mention of hi_ister's name in a public place, Nicholas fired at once; but he kept himsel_uiet by a great effort, and did not even turn his head.
'The jade!' said the same voice which had spoken before. 'She's a tru_ickleby—a worthy imitator of her old uncle Ralph—she hangs back to be mor_ought after—so does he; nothing to be got out of Ralph unless you follow hi_p, and then the money comes doubly welcome, and the bargain doubly hard, fo_ou're impatient and he isn't. Oh! infernal cunning.'
'Infernal cunning,' echoed two voices.
Nicholas was in a perfect agony as the two elderly gentlemen opposite, ros_ne after the other and went away, lest they should be the means of his losin_ne word of what was said. But the conversation was suspended as the_ithdrew, and resumed with even greater freedom when they had left the room.
'I am afraid,' said the younger gentleman, 'that the old woman has grow_ea-a-lous, and locked her up. Upon my soul it looks like it.'
'If they quarrel and little Nickleby goes home to her mother, so much th_etter,' said the first. 'I can do anything with the old lady. She'll believ_nything I tell her.'
'Egad that's true,' returned the other voice. 'Ha, ha, ha! Poor deyvle!'
The laugh was taken up by the two voices which always came in together, an_ecame general at Mrs Nickleby's expense. Nicholas turned burning hot wit_age, but he commanded himself for the moment, and waited to hear more.
What he heard need not be repeated here. Suffice it that as the wine wen_ound he heard enough to acquaint him with the characters and designs of thos_hose conversation he overhead; to possess him with the full extent of Ralph'_illainy, and the real reason of his own presence being required in London. H_eard all this and more. He heard his sister's sufferings derided, and he_irtuous conduct jeered at and brutally misconstrued; he heard her nam_andied from mouth to mouth, and herself made the subject of coarse an_nsolent wagers, free speech, and licentious jesting.
The man who had spoken first, led the conversation, and indeed almos_ngrossed it, being only stimulated from time to time by some sligh_bservation from one or other of his companions. To him then Nichola_ddressed himself when he was sufficiently composed to stand before the party, and force the words from his parched and scorching throat.
'Let me have a word with you, sir,' said Nicholas.
'With me, sir?' retorted Sir Mulberry Hawk, eyeing him in disdainful surprise.
'I said with you,' replied Nicholas, speaking with great difficulty, for hi_assion choked him.
'A mysterious stranger, upon my soul!' exclaimed Sir Mulberry, raising hi_ine-glass to his lips, and looking round upon his friends.
'Will you step apart with me for a few minutes, or do you refuse?' sai_icholas sternly.
Sir Mulberry merely paused in the act of drinking, and bade him either nam_is business or leave the table.
Nicholas drew a card from his pocket, and threw it before him.
'There, sir,' said Nicholas; 'my business you will guess.'
A momentary expression of astonishment, not unmixed with some confusion, appeared in the face of Sir Mulberry as he read the name; but he subdued it i_n instant, and tossing the card to Lord Verisopht, who sat opposite, drew _oothpick from a glass before him, and very leisurely applied it to his mouth.
'Your name and address?' said Nicholas, turning paler as his passion kindled.
'I shall give you neither,' replied Sir Mulberry.
'If there is a gentleman in this party,' said Nicholas, looking round an_carcely able to make his white lips form the words, 'he will acquaint me wit_he name and residence of this man.'
There was a dead silence.
'I am the brother of the young lady who has been the subject of conversatio_ere,' said Nicholas. 'I denounce this person as a liar, and impeach him as _oward. If he has a friend here, he will save him the disgrace of the paltr_ttempt to conceal his name—and utterly useless one—for I will find it out, nor leave him until I have.'
Sir Mulberry looked at him contemptuously, and, addressing his companions, said—
'Let the fellow talk, I have nothing serious to say to boys of his station; and his pretty sister shall save him a broken head, if he talks til_idnight.'
'You are a base and spiritless scoundrel!' said Nicholas, 'and shall b_roclaimed so to the world. I WILL know you; I will follow you home if yo_alk the streets till morning.'
Sir Mulberry's hand involuntarily closed upon the decanter, and he seemed fo_n instant about to launch it at the head of his challenger. But he onl_illed his glass, and laughed in derision.
Nicholas sat himself down, directly opposite to the party, and, summoning th_aiter, paid his bill.
'Do you know that person's name?' he inquired of the man in an audible voice; pointing out Sir Mulberry as he put the question.
Sir Mulberry laughed again, and the two voices which had always spoke_ogether, echoed the laugh; but rather feebly.
'That gentleman, sir?' replied the waiter, who, no doubt, knew his cue, an_nswered with just as little respect, and just as much impertinence as h_ould safely show: 'no, sir, I do not, sir.'
'Here, you sir,' cried Sir Mulberry, as the man was retiring; 'do you kno_HAT person's name?'
'Name, sir? No, sir.'
'Then you'll find it there,' said Sir Mulberry, throwing Nicholas's car_owards him; 'and when you have made yourself master of it, put that piece o_asteboard in the fire—do you hear me?'
The man grinned, and, looking doubtfully at Nicholas, compromised the matte_y sticking the card in the chimney-glass. Having done this, he retired.
Nicholas folded his arms, and biting his lip, sat perfectly quiet; sufficiently expressing by his manner, however, a firm determination to carr_is threat of following Sir Mulberry home, into steady execution.
It was evident from the tone in which the younger member of the party appeare_o remonstrate with his friend, that he objected to this course of proceeding, and urged him to comply with the request which Nicholas had made. Si_ulberry, however, who was not quite sober, and who was in a sullen and dogge_tate of obstinacy, soon silenced the representations of his weak youn_riend, and further seemed—as if to save himself from a repetition of them—t_nsist on being left alone. However this might have been, the young gentlema_nd the two who had always spoken together, actually rose to go after a shor_nterval, and presently retired, leaving their friend alone with Nicholas.
It will be very readily supposed that to one in the condition of Nicholas, th_inutes appeared to move with leaden wings indeed, and that their progress di_ot seem the more rapid from the monotonous ticking of a French clock, or th_hrill sound of its little bell which told the quarters. But there he sat; an_n his old seat on the opposite side of the room reclined Sir Mulberry Hawk, with his legs upon the cushion, and his handkerchief thrown negligently ove_is knees: finishing his magnum of claret with the utmost coolness an_ndifference.
Thus they remained in perfect silence for upwards of an hour— Nicholas woul_ave thought for three hours at least, but that the little bell had only gon_our times. Twice or thrice he looked angrily and impatiently round; but ther_as Sir Mulberry in the same attitude, putting his glass to his lips from tim_o time, and looking vacantly at the wall, as if he were wholly ignorant o_he presence of any living person.
At length he yawned, stretched himself, and rose; walked coolly to the glass, and having surveyed himself therein, turned round and honoured Nicholas with _ong and contemptuous stare. Nicholas stared again with right good-will; Si_ulberry shrugged his shoulders, smiled slightly, rang the bell, and ordere_he waiter to help him on with his greatcoat.
The man did so, and held the door open.
'Don't wait,' said Sir Mulberry; and they were alone again.
Sir Mulberry took several turns up and down the room, whistling carelessly al_he time; stopped to finish the last glass of claret which he had poured out _ew minutes before, walked again, put on his hat, adjusted it by the glass, drew on his gloves, and, at last, walked slowly out. Nicholas, who had bee_uming and chafing until he was nearly wild, darted from his seat, an_ollowed him: so closely, that before the door had swung upon its hinges afte_ir Mulberry's passing out, they stood side by side in the street together.
There was a private cabriolet in waiting; the groom opened the apron, an_umped out to the horse's head.
'Will you make yourself known to me?' asked Nicholas in a suppressed voice.
'No,' replied the other fiercely, and confirming the refusal with an oath.
'If you trust to your horse's speed, you will find yourself mistaken,' sai_icholas. 'I will accompany you. By Heaven I will, if I hang on to the foot- board.'
'You shall be horsewhipped if you do,' returned Sir Mulberry.
'You are a villain,' said Nicholas.
'You are an errand-boy for aught I know,' said Sir Mulberry Hawk.
'I am the son of a country gentleman,' returned Nicholas, 'your equal in birt_nd education, and your superior I trust in everything besides. I tell yo_gain, Miss Nickleby is my sister. Will you or will you not answer for you_nmanly and brutal conduct?'
'To a proper champion—yes. To you—no,' returned Sir Mulberry, taking the rein_n his hand. 'Stand out of the way, dog. William, let go her head.'
'You had better not,' cried Nicholas, springing on the step as Sir Mulberr_umped in, and catching at the reins. 'He has no command over the horse, mind.
You shall not go—you shall not, I swear— till you have told me who you are.'
The groom hesitated, for the mare, who was a high-spirited animal an_horough-bred, plunged so violently that he could scarcely hold her.
'Leave go, I tell you!' thundered his master.
The man obeyed. The animal reared and plunged as though it would dash th_arriage into a thousand pieces, but Nicholas, blind to all sense of danger, and conscious of nothing but his fury, still maintained his place and his hol_pon the reins.
'Will you unclasp your hand?'
'Will you tell me who you are?'
In less time than the quickest tongue could tell it, these words wer_xchanged, and Sir Mulberry shortening his whip, applied it furiously to th_ead and shoulders of Nicholas. It was broken in the struggle; Nicholas gaine_he heavy handle, and with it laid open one side of his antagonist's face fro_he eye to the lip. He saw the gash; knew that the mare had darted off at _ild mad gallop; a hundred lights danced in his eyes, and he felt himsel_lung violently upon the ground.
He was giddy and sick, but staggered to his feet directly, roused by the lou_houts of the men who were tearing up the street, and screaming to those ahea_o clear the way. He was conscious of a torrent of people rushing quickl_y—looking up, could discern the cabriolet whirled along the foot-pavemen_ith frightful rapidity— then heard a loud cry, the smashing of some heav_ody, and the breaking of glass—and then the crowd closed in in the distance, and he could see or hear no more.
The general attention had been entirely directed from himself to the person i_he carriage, and he was quite alone. Rightly judging that under suc_ircumstances it would be madness to follow, he turned down a bye-street i_earch of the nearest coach-stand, finding after a minute or two that he wa_eeling like a drunken man, and aware for the first time of a stream of bloo_hat was trickling down his face and breast.